I’m thankful for people like President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama—yes I used those titles on purpose because they’re still my first family—Dr. Mae Jemison, University of Maryland, Baltimore County President Freeman Hrabowski, and STEM stars Mikaila Ulmer and Moziah Bridges because they (and so many others) make smart cool.
When I was growing up in Inglewood, California demonstrating a love of learning was not cool. As a child, I did not have many examples of cool smart people with postsecondary degrees in my community who looked like me and understood what it meant to be seen as a problem because of the color of my skin. The former president and first lady understood and discussed the inevitable double consciousness students face.
Today, as we celebrate the contributions African descendants continue to make, it is important for children around the world to be inspired by all the Black genius on display.
In 2012, former President Obama established the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans to increase the number of youth who graduate from college and pursue successful careers. As former executive director of the Initiative, I had the honor of supporting African-American children, youth and young adults with great intentionality and without apology. Along with a small team of talented and creative leaders, we worked to study the experiences of the experts (students), highlighting promising and proven ways to support the cognitive, social and emotional development of students, and support and celebrate individuals and institutions engaged in this critical work.
The Initiative built upon a rich tradition of centering and celebrating our most precious resource—our children—and honoring the role that all caring and concerned adults play in nurturing and supporting young people as they learn and develop.
Among the things I am most proud of was our summit series, which took place on college campuses of all types throughout the country. The only experts who were invited to sit on the stage in front of the White House seal were students, as young as elementary school aged. At every summit we asked every student what they needed to thrive, to feel safe, engaged and supported.
No matter the age of the student or the location of the summit the one answer offered most was love—the type of love demonstrated by caring and concerned adults who do what is required to support students as they grow. When they are encouraged and inspired, young people thrive, and it is important to ensure they are supported both in school and in life.
When I think about what it means to honor the rich legacy of African-American history, I think about our responsibility as adults to support our children and youth. I am reminded of the teachings of Asa G. Hillard who reminds us that we will never meet a Black child who is not a genius and there is no secret to how we support them: We first treat them as human and then we then support them with love.
It is this principle that enabled me, a little Black boy from Inglewood, California, to make it to the White House. It is this principle that will enable every Black child to demonstrate cool Black genius from the block to the White House.